Native plant materials development research: An historical perspective
Federal research in the USA on the propagation and use of native plants traces its roots back to 1862, when President Lincoln signed into law the US Department of Agriculture. In 1900, USDA established the Bureau of Plant Industry with seven divisions, including Botany, Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, and Grass and Forage.
The vision of Manifest Destiny and federal legislation, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, led to wide-scale settlement and abusive, albeit mostly borne of ignorance rather than malice, land management activities that caused severe degradation of ecosystems. By the late 1800s, this degradation began escalating the need for plant materials. Large-scale wildfires at the turn of the 20th Century helped launch the US Forest Service (USFS), which had immediate priority to develop native plants (trees) for forest restoration activities. The environmental catastrophe of the 1930's Dust Bowl, combined with the Great Depression, led to the Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service; NRCS) and with it development of numerous species, most of them native, to maintain, provide, or restore immediate economic benefit (e.g., grazing, crop protection, etc). Soil stabilization was the paramount goal.
During the next 50 years, this modern era of plant evaluation and breeding focused on productivity and the associated potential economic gains. The USFS developed seed orchards and seed transfer guidelines to cultivate important, native, commercial tree species with improved growth, yield, and disease resistance. Similarly, NRCS developed trees and shrubs for windbreaks to improve crops yields in the Great Plains, grass species to improve grazing on degraded rangelands and pastures, and a wide range of other herbaceous materials for other soil and water conservation uses. In 1953, the Agricultural Research Service began working with important grasses and forbs. Although most species were native, some of the introduced species, selected for their aggressive capabilities to colonize the land (remember, soil stabilization was a primary focus of much of the 1930's conservation effort), often produced unintended negative consequences.
The last three decades have seen a transition in native plant development and deployment with a greater appreciation for the intrinsic value of native plants on the landscape, and maintaining adaptive capacity and robust genetic diversity. Current selection and development of native plants for ecosystem restoration wrestles with context of the restoration; Agency priorities, mandates, goals, and history; and moving forward with great uncertainty in climate, funding, and societal demands.